The year was 1985.
Computers were slowly becoming popular in the US, thanks to products like the Macintosh. But they were still seen as something that were geek/nerd territory, and not for general users.
Meanwhile, British rock group Dire Straits had scored what seemed to be a major hit with their album, Brothers in Arms. The band which had been reasonably popular thanks to numbers like Sultans of Swings in the past seemed to have taken a step closer to greatness with the album, which blended relatively quiet numbers like One World and Brothers in Arms with peppy songs like Walk of Life and most notably, Money for Nothing.
Money for Nothing, for many people, was the showcase song of the album. It featured an intro by Sting (who put in a guest appearance) and a surprisingly edgy guitar riff by the band’s most visible star, Mark Knopfler.
The song was written as a means to break into the American market. The band was advised to have a song that was “MTVable” with a good video as well, as getting popular on MTV, the world’s first 24-hour music channel on television, which was immensely popular in the US. The song itself was not a problem. Mark Knopfler literally incorporated MTV into the song – the opening lyrics were “I want my MTV,” and would be sung by Sting (who ended up getting credit for writing the song, even though he evidently did not want it). Ironically, the song itself seemed to criticize MTV because it seemed to poke fun at artists who appeared on it, with the song claiming that acts who appeared on the channel did not actually work:
“Now look at them yo-yo’s
That’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t working
That’s the way you do it
Money for nothing
And chicks for free”
Some MTV executives were not amused by this, but programming head Les Garland loved the song and felt that the opening lines “I want my MTV” had immense marketing potential.
The video, however, was another matter. And it would create tech history.
At that time, music videos pretty much revolved around the concept of either showing the band or singer performing (often with a lot of dancers not wearing too much) or having a “story” based on the song featuring actors. However, for Money for Nothing, MTV had bigger plans.
The problem was that Mark Knopfler did not like videos!
Very much a child of the sixties, Knopfler believed that videos destroyed the purity of songs and distracted from the artists. As it seemed that he would not budge from his stance, Warner Bros flew out music video director Steve Barron, who was known for his work on the videos of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and A-ha’s “Take on Me” to talk to Knopfler, who was at that time in Budapest. Barron came up with a whole new concept to try and convince Knopfler.
What about a video that featured characters made by computer animation? Now, computer animation in those days was not the uber smooth experience that it is these days – characters and surroundings were blocky, colors were not the greatest and detail was limited. Perhaps that is why they had not been used much in popular media and almost never in something as designed to attract public attention as music videos. Barron, however felt that this represented an opportunity – the video would be totally difference from the “dance and perform” music videos that were the rule on MTV.
Knopfler was evidently still not convinced but is believed to have been swayed by his girlfriend, and the fact that he himself would not have to feature too much in the video. Barron got working on the video with a company called Rushes Postproduction. Yes, there was some footage of the band performing, but for the most part, the video was largely computer animation. Creating the animation were Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair (who later founded Mainframe Entertainment) and they used a Bosch FGS-4000 CGI system and Quantel Paintbox workstation. The pair had planned to put in more detail in the video but had to instead keep things a tad more basic as they were in danger of overrunning the budget (computer animations were expensive back then!).
The result was a five-minute video that might seem archaic by modern today’s sleek standards but was utterly path-breaking for 1985. It started with an animation character in a room sitting and watching (well!) MTV on his television with his dog and then getting sucked into it. What follows is a brief clip of the band performing with some special effects, and then it is back into computer animation territory as a man with a cap, chomping a cigar, seemingly pokes fun at rock stars on MTV and claims that they do not do any real work and yet get “money for nothing and chicks for free” even as the “real” blue collar workers (like him) work on delivering refrigerators and colour televisions.
Yes, the graphics now seem jaded, detail is almost non-existent (shirts have no buttons) and the colors seem washed out in places, but the video won awards by the dozen and was aired thousands of times. It was the first video to be aired on MTV Europe in 1987 and attained cult status. Yes, there was some controversy about a few of the lyrics being anti-gay (thanks to singers being referred to as “faggots” in a section) but no one questioned the impact of the video itself – it was nothing like anything anyone had seen before. It played a big role in marrying computer animations with music videos and entertainment and made computers seem more fun and mainstream instead of being the preserve of geeks and bespectacled nerds sitting in dark rooms.
It also meant that the next time any musician wanted to make a video, they did not just call a director, actors, and dancers, but also computer animation experts.
And the money they made was not for nothing!
You can see the video below: